MAGA-Themed Açaí Bowl Chain Serves Hardcore Politics With Your Lunch

Maybe you’ve heard that conservatives are building a parallel economy. Rather than wait to stage another boycott when the next major beer or sneaker brand inevitably goes “woke,” you establish businesses that, from the outset, explicitly tout traditional values. Don’t like Bud Light anymore? Sounds like you need super-patriotic Ultra Right beer. Can’t stand Nike? Check out UNITUS, a sports apparel company that “champions faith, family, and freedom” and sells shoes with Bible references printed on them.

In theory, there’s no product you couldn’t politicize this way, catering to half of a polarized electorate feeling threatened by corporations cashing in on LGBTQ Pride or paying lip service to diversity and social justice. And yet there is some cognitive dissonance to a concept like Freedom Bowls, a brand-new chain of heavily Donald Trump-themed health food restaurants serving açaí bowls and smoothies. Such is the paradox, apparently, of MAGA messaging in sunny Southern California.

On Thursday, I drove east from my liberal bubble in Los Angeles toward the vast metropolitan patchwork known as the Inland Empire — a region as divided as any when it comes to our culture wars. Freedom Bowls had, at the beginning of the month, opened its second location in Redlands, a city that went for Biden in the 2020 election, with Trump losing by nine points. The brand debuted with a store to the south, in Lake Elsinore, weeks earlier, drawing both strongly positive and intensely critical Yelp reviews. “Let me start off by saying that I love what this company stands for however they have a ton of work to do to be successful,” wrote one customer who rattled off a list of complaints about the service and cleanliness at the store. Others wrote five-star raves praising the food — and, of course, the vibe.

The unusual restaurant is the brainchild of entrepreneur Erik Martinez, better known as the founder of Cookie Plug, a hip-hop-themed bakery chain that has stores nationwide and last year landed rapper LL Cool J as a partner leading a major expansion. It currently supplies cookies to the açaí stores and, in fact, the Freedom Bowls in Redlands was formerly a Cookie Plug. But Martinez, who had a long history in retail before striking out on his own, has chosen a much different model for his latest venture.

Miles Klee for Rolling Stone

“I just feel like the country is at a crossroads,” Martinez tells Rolling Stone. “There’s so much division that the media puts out, but in reality, everyone’s cool with each other. What we’re shown on social media and news is that we all hate each other, and it’s just not the case.” He sees Freedom Bowls as not merely an idea with viral potential — noting how quickly their Instagram account has grown — but an attempt to “get the country back on track” with the kind of national identity and flag-waving patriotism he remembers seeing after 9/11. Trump, to his mind, is almost incidental in this equation, though he certainly prefers the former president to Biden and plans to vote for him in November. (“I like Ramaswamy, but it’s not his time yet,” Martinez says when considering alternative candidates. RFK Jr. also meets with his approval.)

Arriving at the Redlands spot around lunchtime, I saw a couple of women leaving with bowls; there’s no seating inside, so it’s strictly a takeout operation. They wore plain athletic leggings and sweatshirts, nothing that would mark them as proud Trump supporters. The front door had a couple of clues as to what lay inside: an anti-“snowflake” decal and another with an image of a pistol that read “Constitutionally Carried Weapons Are Welcome Here.” Once inside, I came face to face with a larger-than-life Trump meme — the kind you might see on your Facebook feed — pointing directly at me.

The entire vertical surface area of the modest space was plastered with American flags, bald eagles, and at least one fake Thomas Jefferson quote. One corner featured AI-generated portraits of the far right’s favorite villains, including Biden, Bill Gates, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Hillary Clinton, who was labeled as a “treasonist” (not a real word, as far as I’m aware). In the window hung T-shirts for sale: one depicted a rifle and said “Red White and Pew Pew Pew,” while another explained that “The Second Amendment Is Basically America’s Vaccine For Communism.”

Then you had the daunting menu, which listed prices not by number but with $1, $5, and $10 bills, presumably to show off the founding fathers and presidents who appear on our paper currency. A “Deflation Act” special offering a custom-made bowl with “Freedom Bites” cookies, a “Freedom Juice” and a dog treat for $17.76 appeared to take aim at the economy under the current presidential administration.

Miles Klee for Rolling Stone

The women on staff were pleasant and not, it seemed, eager to play up the hardcore ideology advertised by their surroundings. I sampled the açaí itself before ordering a “Founder’s Bowl” that had blueberries, strawberries, pineapple, peanut butter, and what seemed like at least half a dozen other ingredients. Just to put my cards on the table: I’m not someone who thinks tossing a bunch of raw foods I’d like better on their own into a bowl and mixing them up holds any particular appeal, so I only took a few experimental bites. I couldn’t picture Trump, with his notoriously greasy diet, trying a single spoonful of it.

“I think America has not really pushed health consciousness in a long time,” Martinez says. “If you look at now versus 20 years ago, there’s not as many able-bodied men in society, right?” He chalks this up in part to critiques of toxic masculinity, and “all these words to make men feel like they can’t really be men anymore.” One wall of Freedom Bowls serves as a kind of self-improvement manifesto that begins, “They want you fat, become fit,” and asserts that “personal excellence is the ultimate rebellion.” But Martinez acknowledges with a laugh that Trump may be an odd mascot for a health-food brand. “I’d never really considered what this dude eats,” he says. “He’s an older gentleman, and if you compare him younger to where he is now, it looks like he’s put on a few pounds. I mean, at no point did I think he’s the model of fitness.”

One employee, Stacy, tells Rolling Stone that she initially showed up to interview for a job at Cookie Plug. But when she came to the store, she learned that it was being renovated to reopen as a Freedom Bowls. She was asked whether she minded the MAGA decor, and, still wanting a job, said it was fine with her. “I figured, might as well,” she says of her decision to go through with the interview. Martinez says that’s about the extent of the political questions in the hiring process — and if someone decides the atmosphere is not for them, no harm, no foul. “We want people to feel like they fit in at their workplace,” he adds.

Stacy recalls being struck by the new look. “It was very open, very in-your-face,” she says. As for her own political allegiances, she didn’t vote for Trump in 2020, but believes he won the election. (He didn’t.) “That part is a little much,” Stacy admits, gesturing to the wall where Hillary Clinton and others are portrayed as traitorous villains. “But I try to think of it like I’m in AP history — you have George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, independence. I think of it more like, we’re just patriotic.”

Miles Klee for Rolling Stone

“Everyone who comes here is really nice,” Stacy adds. “I think the only ones who come here are the ones who follow the [social media] accounts. They like what they see, basically.” Do the customers talk politics? “Sometimes, yeah,” she confirms. “They’ll be like, ‘We love Trump!’ And we’re like, ‘Ah, cool.’” Martinez agrees that the feedback has been mostly encouraging, and he stresses that his hope with Freedom Bowls is to start conversations while reminding consumers that personal views and preferences are theirs to express. “Everyone has a choice,” he says. “That’s what makes America great.”

In Stacy’s experience, the negative comments only appear online — although she she’s seen at least two people leave after coming in and encountering Trump’s likeness, with an air she describes as “Oh, I think we’re in the wrong place.” Overall, she and the other employees say, business has been good. And, to her knowledge, nobody has come in carrying a gun. For a uniform, she’s wearing the one Freedom Bowls T-shirt that doesn’t celebrate firearms — it says “Dogs & Freedom” in a stars-and-stripes pattern. “I have a dog, and freedom’s cool,” she says. “I think everyone [here] has the dog shirt.”

In the end, I felt a similar sort of political disengagement at Freedom Bowls, and the couple of other customers who came through in my time there appeared to treat it as they would any casual lunch spot. Perhaps our ability to tune out such heavy-handed imagery is a measure of how often we are bombarded with it.

Miles Klee for Rolling Stone

Which is just one more of the many contradictions at the heart of Freedom Bowls. It’s a no-snowflakes zone that ironically offers a kind of safe space for MAGA voters to connect. Martinez says he “expected it to be polarizing” — yet also wants it to remind Americans of all they have in common. He’s dishing out vegan options to a base that, at least on Twitter, won’t hesitate to bash the other side for that lifestyle choice. (Martinez himself knocks Bill Gates for advocating against red meat: “Nobody wants to eat the crickets,” he says, alluding to a fear on the right that governments will someday force their citizens to subsist on insects.)

I point out that the chain is part of a trend of smaller companies flaunting their conservative colors in response to corporate neoliberalism. Even while agreeing on this, Martinez says this phenomenon is actually about how people want “to support authentic businesses” regardless of their differing opinions, and that “when I patronize a business, I don’t have to agree 100 percent with everything that business does.” This philosophy, of course, runs entirely counter to the parallel economy movement, one based on a strict alignment of values between customer and brand.

Could it be, then, that the internal justifications for Freedom Bowls are secondary to the novelty? Cookie Plug took off thanks to TikTok buzz, with Martinez proving himself adept at translating a unique aesthetic into sales, and he already has plans to open another açaí store in the San Diego, followed by a food truck. The blitz, on social media and on the ground, is a Trumpian strategy, promising victory through sheer momentum. At the end of the day, Martinez sounds less interested in converting others to the Donald’s cause than positioning himself as a mogul in his own right. “I don’t want a passive income,” he wrote on LinkedIn last year. “I want a f*cking empire.”

That’s not to say he’d turn down a Trump campaign appearance at a Freedom Bowls. “If he wanted to come in, that would be pretty, pretty incredible,” Martinez says. It seems hard to deny that we’d all get a kick out of that McDonald’s fiend sampling some açaí. Hell, just hearing him pronounce it would be wild.